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.              

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