Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Nuanced Cooperation

In my previous blog entry I suggested that social scientists often overlook some of the finer points in human cooperation. Let's continue that diatribe! Obviously, the word "cooperation" is notoriously vague. It is a relational term that can mean just about anything. So let's call my new approach: "nuanced cooperation." Obviously, cooperation requires at least two persons, unless you suffer from multiple-personality disorder. Under normal, healthy psychological circumstances, you cannot cooperate with yourself or with a thing. Individuals can cooperate with other individuals and/or groups, and groups can cooperate with other groups and/or individuals. One of the nuances that is almost entirely overlooked in discussions of cooperation is the obvious fact that there are varying degrees of cooperation. So why do we cooperate in varying degrees? Well...because we live in a finite world and therefore individuals and groups cannot afford to contribute time, energy, and resources to all cooperative enterprise. Hence, finite humans ration their cooperative time, energy, and resources. Many if not most individual enterprises involve both cooperation and competition from other enterprises. Even Bill Gates rations his finite resources! Given the vast number of cooperative opportunities in our social environment, we are all probably more non-cooperative than cooperative. Therefore, it's probably more accurate to portray modern humans as a non-cooperative.

All cooperative enterprises involve planning in pursuit of ends or goals. Collective enterprises orchestrated by groups (or organizations) require collective planning, which in turn requires leader-follower relationships. A good leader attracts followers, a bad leader repels followers. Individual enterprises require individual planning.  And, of course, there are better and worse forms of individual and collective planning. Ineffective planning usually leads to failure to achieve one's goals. We are non-cooperative when we prefer not to contribute our time, energy or resources to any given enterprise. Even when we choose to cooperate, we limit the amount of time, energy, and resources that we commit to various cooperative enterprises. Consequently, most enterprises eventually suffer from extinction due to competition from other enterprises. The number of cooperators associated with the horse and buggy industry and the Flat Earth Society has been greatly diminished.   

Of course, there's a lot moral discourse associated with how individuals and groups ration time, energy, and resources, especially when it comes to beneficent enterprises. There are many enterprises conducted by charitable organizations that are worthy of our cooperation. But it's impossible to contribute time, effort, and resources to all of them! Our personal friends and relatives often request our beneficent cooperation in pursuit of their personal ends (or goals). If you have a lot of "needy" friends, these requests can really drain your time, energy, and resources. Parents with young children and adult children with old parents experience the finitude of time, energy, and resources. Everyone believes that their own particular enterprise is worthy of the time, effort, and resources of others, and therefore, we are often offended when others choose to be non-cooperative, or contribute less to our enterprise than we'd like.

Some cooperative enterprises are immoral and therefore, not only do we refuse to cooperate, we actively seek to undermine those enterprises. Some immoral enterprises pursue immoral goals, some employ immoral means, and some pursue both immoral ends via immoral means. Unfortunately, we ration our cooperation based on imperfect information, and unwittingly contribute time, effort, or resources to illegal and/or immoral enterprises. One way to dress up a repulsive enterprise is to lie about it's means and/or ends. How many bogus charitable organizations have you contributed to?
Moreover, human cooperation has always been conditioned by both enticements (rewards) and coercive threats (punishments). Many cooperative enterprises involve reciprocity; that is cooperation is based on "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours." However, we all willingly contribute variable quantities of our time, energy, and resources to various enterprises in the absence of either enticements or threats. And, depending on your supply of time, energy, and resources, if you commit yourself to to many cooperative enterprises, your contribution to any one enterprise might be negligible, or even border on non-cooperative.

Finally, given the inevitable competition between cooperative enterprises, all enterprises eventually suffer extinction. Where's that Roman Empire now? One way to avoid extinction is to force individuals and groups to contribute time, effort, and resources to your particular enterprise. However, forced cooperation is no panacea. Those who control enterprises that provide the coercive force that sustains involuntary cooperation, also ration their own time, energy, and resources, and therefore, usually demand more and more of your time, effort, and resources to monitor and control those who prefer non-cooperation. How many DEA agents, fences, courts, and prisons will it take to monitor and enforce the ongoing Drug War enterprise? There is a general understanding that Libertarians are committed to voluntary cooperation and therefore they reject forceful seizure of the time, energy, and resources of others; and the expansion of coercive force necessary to insure all forms of involuntary cooperation.         

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Over the years there's been a lot scientific research and discussion of cooperation, especially in the area of "leadership studies." Personally, I think a lot of it is based on conceptual ambiguity. Let's see what we can do to clean up some of the mess.

Since Plato, philosophers have found it useful to distinguish between two species of the Good. Some human actions are regarded as "intrinsically good," or "good for their own sake." Happiness, pleasure, and friendship are usually offered as examples. Other human actions are "extrinsically good," or "good for their favorable consequences."  Getting a flu shot in the fall is a good example. And of course, since Plato, philosophers have argued endlessly over whether ANY human actions are really "good for their own sake," AND whether it is possible to know (with certainty) whether human actions have positive or negative utility ratios over the long-term or the short-term. And of course, there's the old standby: "Good for whom?" So let's ask the simple question: "Is cooperation Good? If so, is it an intrinsic good or an extrinsic good?"

Before we answer that, we have to decide what we mean when we use the term cooperation. First of all, we cooperate (or do not cooperate) in the context of the pursuit of goals, therefore cooperation is a teleological term subject to analysis via "means" and "ends." In ethics, we can judge the morality of both means and ends. Some ends are morally praiseworthy (ending world hunger) others are morally blameworthy (genocide). Some means of ending world hunger are morally praiseworthy (teaching starving nations how to grow food), other means are immoral (killing off children to feed adults). So what does this say about cooperation? Human cooperation in inexorably amoral; that is to say, we human beings can cooperate in pursuit of either praiseworthy or blameworthy goals, and can cooperate via both both moral and immoral means. So what does this say about the morality of the human species? Well, we certainly cannot deduce morality from the mere fact that we cooperate with one another. Moreover, there are also more and less effective means of cooperating. Some "means" are more likely to produce "ends" than others. I don't think anyone thinks that, over the long run, shipping vast quantities of food to starving countries is a very efficient way to solve the problem of world hunger. In other words, we have a moral obligation to not only cooperate in the pursuit of worthwhile goals, we also have an obligation to do it as efficiently as possible. Call it non-productive cooperation. There's a ton of it out there! Conversely, we humans often cooperate very efficiently in pursuit of immoral goals, genocide, holocaust, organized crime etc. So I would argue that morality cannot be deduced from the fact we are a cooperative species. The ethics of cooperation is enormously complex and vastly under-developed by contemporary moral psychology. My next blog entry will explore the ethics of individual cooperation in collective projects.